This Christmas, Jesus won’t be born. There will be no angels appearing to shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem announcing the birth of the Messiah. There will be no God-child lying in a manger because there is no room at the inn. These events were over and done long ago.
Yet, this Christmas, children will pray to “the Baby Jesus.” Adults will delight in saying, “Today, Christ is born.” Bishops and cardinals will solemnly announce that the waiting is over and the birth has at last taken place.
It’s the Church’s yearly Christmas pageant. It’s like a form of playacting. In Advent, we can seem like children pretending to await the Savior. Then on Dec. 25, we pretend Jesus is born.
If this seems childlike, it is. To be Christian is to be like a child who is still capable of wonder and joy. But there are a few reasons why the Christmas pageant isn’t playacting at all.
First, our Christmas celebrations aren’t “pretend,” because God is outside time.
God isn’t bound by the limitations of time and space that we are. He isn’t confined to one place or one time. He created time and space. You could say he stands apart or above time, but even then you have to use a term borrowed from our own dimensions, and it isn’t quite true. He is in time and outside it.
From God’s perspective, all of time and space is present at once. Yet God truly entered into time and space — on a date we’re not certain of in the year 4 A.D., as scientists now estimate.
To celebrate the God-outside-time’s entrance into time is to do something far more than mark an anniversary. We can celebrate with God as if the event is happening right now — because, from his eternal perspective, it is.
Of course, from our perspective, the events of the Nativity aren’t happening right now. And that’s the second reason we celebrate Christmas the way we do: because we need time.
The Christmas story points to a number of paradoxes in our Christian lives. One is this: We are made for eternity and are given an eternal Savior, but must learn to know, love and serve him in the temporal world. The advantage of this arrangement is that we each have access to Christ equally with all people of all times and places — he is as near to us as he has ever been to anyone. The disadvantage is that it takes time to get to know him — it can’t happen all in an eternal moment.
So the Church allows us to meet Christ in a very human way. We are told he’s coming as the Church year begins, in Advent. Then we are told he has come. Then he’s a child in the readings and feasts from Holy Family to the Epiphany. Then we hear about his teaching and healing ministry before Lent and Easter’s celebration of his death and resurrection.
It’s all part of the effort God has made to draw us closer to himself. He suits his message to our needs — the needs of time-bound people.
The third reason our Churchwide Christmas pageant isn’t playacting is that Christ really does come to us each Christmas — as he does every day — at Mass.
Mass and the other sacraments are unique places where we temporal creatures get to participate directly in God’s eternal moment. At the Mass, Christ is really present in a way that isn’t playacting at all. He is there, body and blood, soul and divinity.
As the Compendium of the Catechism puts it:
“Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist in a unique and incomparable way. He is present in a true, real and substantial way, with his body and his blood, with his soul and his divinity. In the Eucharist, therefore, there is present in a sacramental way, that is, under the Eucharistic species of bread and wine, Christ whole and entire, God and Man.”
The Compendium points out that the worship due to the Eucharist, whether during the celebration of the Mass or outside it, “is the worship of latria, that is, the adoration given to God alone.”
Thus, at the center of our Christmas pageant isn’t a representative of Christ — it is Christ himself. When we sing “O come let us adore him,” we aren’t singing about adoring a doll or a memory — we are adoring Christ, really present in the sacrament.
The last reason Christmas isn’t play acting is the most important, but may be the one we think of last. We prepare for Christ’s coming each year and celebrate his arrival, not because we need to prepare for a birthday celebration — but because one day he is going to come again, in a way we do need to prepare for.
Christ’s second coming can seem far off and a little unreal. We might accept it as true in a theoretical way, even as we neglect its practical implications.
This is precisely the situation in which many Jews found themselves during the first coming of Christ. They had grown accustomed to waiting for the Messiah, proclaiming that he would come one day, always expecting that it would happen in some future generation. Then, when he did come, many of them wound up rejecting the very one they had spent their lives preparing for.
There’s no reason to assume that we will escape the same fate.
Each Advent, the Church mixes readings about the first coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ. The great Christmas pageant of the Church isn’t an end in itself. It’s remote preparation for the time when Christ will come again.
So, deck the halls, light the lights, kneel at the manger and make merry with abandon this Christmas, knowing that it isn’t just a game of pretend. It’s real.
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing …